For a lifetime, really. The 31-year-old bandleader’s group, Debo Band, has been playing a propulsive brand of Ethiopian jazz on Boston’s underground rock circuit for seven years. The group will finally release its debut album Tuesday — a mix of traditional songs and originals being peddled by Next Ambiance, a subsidiary of Sub Pop, the label that first signed Nirvana, the Shins and other indie-turned-really-famous rock groups. (To support the album, Debo Band will visit U Street Music Hallnext Saturday.)
But Mekonnen’s musical journey can be traced across decades, across continents and across formats — from cassettes, to CDs, to MP3s, to these five boxes of shrink-wrapped vinyl, a medium that 21st-century music enthusiasts have saved from extinction.
Born in Sudan to Ethiopian refugees, Mekonnen grew up in Dallas, where he took up the saxophone. His middle school teachers gave him recordings from Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the CD booklets crammed with liner notes that he would read over and over. The music didn’t sound too different from the Ethiopian jazz his parents had dubbed onto blank cassettes and would play around the house — but American jazz had a story.
“It occurred to me in middle school that my parents were listening to this music and there was saxophone all over it,” Mekonnen says. “When I became a teenager and started asking my mom and dad for more context, they just didn’t have it. . . . But me, growing up with all that jazz information, reading all the liner notes by Nat Hentoff and Ira Gitler, I cared about all the history and detail.”
He didn’t find it until 2004, when he moved to Boston and audited classes at Berklee College of Music, the school where Ethio-jazz great Mulatu Astatke once studied. In Boston, Mekonnen joined an Ethiopian student association whose members hipped him to Ethiopiques, a popular series of compilation albums featuring Ethiopian jazz from the ’60s and ’70s. The CD booklets were brimming with the data that Mekonnen couldn’t glean from his parents’ Maxell cassettes. And the discs were filled with revelatory music from what many consider to be the golden age of Ethiopian song.
The rush of answers posed a bigger question for Mekonnen: “If you have a golden age, what is the music that comes after it?”
Mekonnen persuaded the student association’s president, Bruck Tesfaye, to perform with him at a talent show in 2005. Tesfaye would eventually become Debo Band’s lead singer. Later, Mekonnen recruited musicians from local post-punk and klezmer groups who lived in his neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. He began transposing Ethiopian songs into arrangements for non-Ethiopian instruments: violin, accordion and sousaphone. It all felt natural. “We were a community of these Jamaica Plain post-punk circus performers with an interest in the culture,” Mekonnen says.
Nearly a dozen members strong, Debo Band — “debo” roughly translates to “collective effort” in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language — began playing cafes and nightclubs, a gig or so a month. But the group didn’t leave Boston’s bubble until 2009, when it received a grant to perform in Ethiopia. To warm up, Mekonnen took the band on a tour of the East Coast, where he quickly realized that his band would be defined by its audience.
“Most of our shows were not for the Ethiopian community and they weren’t for the world music community,” Mekonnen says. “We were playing rock shows as a part of the Boston underground. . . . But it made sense for presenters to put us on world music festivals. . . . And then you start thinking about your identity as a band. How are we marketing ourselves? What kind of label would we be on?”
Mekonnen wanted to draw rock audiences, fans of “world” music and members of the Ethiopian diaspora community — all without looking like a dabbler. “I know the vastness of this music,” Mekonnen says. “So we were like, ‘Let’s take our time.’ ”
That patient focus brought them to the attention of Thomas Gobena, sometimes known as “Tommy T,” a Washington musician who plays bass in the gypsy-punk group Gogol Bordello. When Debo Band was good and ready to cut its debut album, Gobena said he wanted to produce it.
“They breathe Ethiopian music, the culture, the whole thing,” Gobena says from Croatia, where he’s on tour with Gogol Bordello. “They’re not just trying to emulate some music that they heard and thought was cool. They’re playing this music as authentically as anyone can play it.”
That level of commitment can be felt onstage when Debo Band doles out its grooves with almost scholarly seriousness. It seems poised to help evangelize Ethiopian jazz the same way the New York City group Antibalas helped spread the late Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat sound a decade ago. “That’s been a challenge of ours,” says Mekonnen. “To get the hipster rock kids to dance.”
And while the Sub Pop connection should help get those kids in the building, he’s reaching Ethiopia’s diaspora communities by using Facebook’s superpowers. With everyone on one dance floor, Mekonnen hopes to spark something timeless.
“I think the main point comes down to creating a celebratory experience,” he says.